After his baptism and temptation in the Judean wilderness, Jesus moved northward again to his home territory and begin a long and rambling ministry in and around the Galilee. While John’s account suggests that he kept the feasts at Jerusalem during this time along with the other able-bodied Jewish men, most of the teachings and miracles that we learned about as kids in Sunday School happened in those northern towns and villages and the wide spaces in between. It was only in the final weeks of his life, perhaps motivated by news of a friend’s dire illness, that he set his face one last time for Jerusalem, and things began to get really intense. So knowing where we are on the map as we read often means knowing where we are in Jesus’ life.
It turns out that maps matter when reading the parables, too. If you’re like me, you can recall a fair handful from Bible lessons as a child — the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep and Son, the Two Houses, something about a farmer scattering seeds. But could you locate them geographically, identify where they were told? Answering the “where” of the parables frequently helps us understand the “why” of them.
When he was in the hinterlands of the Galilee or cities like Capernaum by the Sea, areas equally home to farmers, fishermen, and zealous would-be Messiahs, his subject matter and tone matched the landscape and labors of his listeners. Seeds and soil, the foundations of houses, yeast in dough, the kindness of strangers, and fish caught in nets painted verbal pictures of Word and response, Kingdom and treasure. There’s a riddle-like nature to these narrated images, something to be savored later through seed-time and harvest till somebody got it.
But once he is on the road to Jerusalem with a known end in view, Jesus’ parables become more complex, cautionary — and even confrontational. The majority of these transitional tales are recorded in Luke, where searching for lost sheep, coins and sons is an obvious foil for the complaining Pharisees who object to Jesus’ table companions, and where Jesus points out that those who didn’t heed Moses’ words in the first place are unlikely to listen to somebody back from the dead (“Yes, I’m talking about you, scribes!”). Even those parables that seem addressed to his disciples have an edge to them, as he doubts that faithful prayer as persistent as a widow’s legal petitions would be easy to find in the days ahead, and a shrewd manager’s unscrupulousness is held up as a model for the bumbling sons of light.
Then as the showdown approaches in Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets, Jesus’ parables begin to communicate even weightier things than before. Themes of differentiation between the faithful and the unfaithful, of judgment and of readiness for the sudden return of the King begin to emerge. Don’t miss that as he anticipates the final, fatal blow from the tenants of the vineyard, he is narrating the last chapter of the city he is standing in. Whoever has ears, let him hear.